City-county skirmish building over tax billing

The Salisbury City Council will send a letter to the Wicomico County Council and meet with those counterparts to object to County Administrator Bob Culver’s decision to stop issuing city tax bills from his office.

Currently, it is the practice of the county’s staff to mail out both city and county tax bills.

Salisbury Mayor Jake Day, at a recent City Council meeting, said Culver informed the city that practice will stop, potentially making tax payments more cumbersome for Salisbury residents and business owners.

“Send a letter, jointly signed by all of us, to the County Council, because I think they are reasonable people,” City Council President Jack Heath told Day at a Feb. 5 public meeting.

“If, in spite of all the efforts of city and County Council, if this proceeds, I imagine we’ll be left with no choice but to ask (a) court to intervene. It’s incredibly irresponsible to all businesses in Wicomico County. It’s irresponsible to the taxpayers,” Day said.

“Yes, sue. We’re going to sue them,” Heath said, agreeing.

Day said if the county stops billing for city taxes, taxpayers will have to write “two separate checks.”

“It’s problematic in every possible way,” Day said.

Salisbury City Attorney Mark Tilghman said the County Charter makes tax billing “a function of both the (County) Executive and the (County) Council in order to enter into these agreements and it appears to have been unilaterally terminated.”

But County Administrative Director Wayne Strausburg told the Salisbury Independent that Culver’s action is an allowable executive decision and the County Council can’t reverse it.

“The assertion that it is a violation of the County Charter is entirely untrue. There is nothing in the County Charter that requires the county to provide any service to the city, much less doing their tax billing,” Strausburg said.

Day said the county is obligated by resolution, but Strausburg said that resolution predates Wicomico County’s executive form of government and, therefore, the existing charter.

Combining the billing was part of an effort to streamline governments and consolidate efforts as many as 30 years ago.

“I think they’re referring to an agreement that was done while Joe Schiller was still the County Finance Director,” Strausburg said. “That’s how far back it goes.

“That resolution provided the agreement can be terminated by either party. It was basically a year-to-year agreement,” Strausburg said.

According to Strausburg, Culver and Day — during monthly meetings once facilitated by then-CEO Ernie Colburn of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce — often discussed overlaps in city-county functions and agreed to improve efficiency.

“This function, the billing of city taxes, was discussed at this time. This is not a late-breaking development. It had been discussed,” Strausburg said.

But Day said it isn’t fair to burden 84 percent of businesses in Salisbury and 30 percent of residents who live there. There won’t be any benefit to the county, Day said, “unless you quantify the amount of ink printed onto the sheets of paper.”

Salisbury will have to “emergency spend several hundred thousand dollars to hire staff, to buy software, to train on it and be able to send tax bills on it,” Day said.

City Finance Director Keith Cordrey estimated the cost would be $150,000.

But Strausburg countered the matter goes beyond printing and mailing costs.

“The amount of time that county employees spend on that process is being underestimated. I remember the quip, ‘Here’s 25 cents for the ink.’ That’s a rather disingenuous comment,” Strausburg said, referring to City Councilman Muir Boda’s interjection at the City Council meeting.

“There is a misunderstanding of the details about the process of what goes into billing. It’s a lot more than just the cost of ink and the cost of mailing,” Strausburg said.

City officials, he said, “can certainly go before the County Council.”

“The County Council sets their agenda and they can hear anyone they care to hear. But this is an executive decision. A simple reading of the County Charter would demonstrate that the Finance Department and Finance Department functions are under the auspices of the County Executive,” Strausburg said.

Day said city officials wrote to Culver, asking that he reconsider, but were told the decision had already been made.

The city also offered to pay for half the printing costs, “but that was rebuffed as well,” Day said.

 

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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